It’s too soon to panic over the Milwaukee Bucks … if they adjust their defense

Even after losing Game 1, it’s too soon to panic over the Milwaukee Bucks.

Tuesday’s Game 1 loss to the Orlando Magic gave Milwaukee Bucks doubters, Los Angeles Lakers fans and Giannis Antetokounmpo skeptics all the ammunition they needed to fire off takes they’d been charging up for five months now.

Never mind that it was the first game of a best-of-seven series in the first round of the playoffs. Never mind that these guys have played a grand total of eight seeding games after a four-month layover. And never mind that the Lakers similarly struggled in their seeding games, that the Bucks are a historically great team on both ends of the floor or that most of the criticism piling on is born from the selfish interests of the masses who want Giannis to join a bigger market and form his own star-studded super-team.

No matter the motivation — and trust me, there’s plenty of incentive for talking heads and rival front offices alike to encourage the chatter surrounding a Milwaukee contender that’s only been together for two seasons) — it’s way, way, way too early to start panicking over Milwaukee’s shocking playoff debut.

True enough, there could be something concerning brewing here, since the Bucks haven’t looked like themselves in Orlando yet. Before the NBA was forced to suspend its season, they had the best record (53-12) and point differential (plus-11.3) in basketball. The next-closest team, Los Angeles, was three games back in the league-wide standings and nearly four points behind in point differential (plus-7.4).

Milwaukee’s offensive rating of 112.3 was good for sixth in the association, while its defensive rating of 101.6 was a league-best figure.

In short, the Bucks were dominant on both ends of the floor and led by the runaway favorite for MVP.

In the bubble, however, they’ve showed severe signs of rust from that four-month break. Their 3-5 record in seeding games wasn’t a huge concern considering they had all but locked up the 1-seed and therefore had little to play for, but even with the starters resting or playing reduced minutes, the team’s defensive rating shot up to 110.2 (10th among the 22 bubble teams) and its offensive rating dropped to 109.4 (14th).

The slippage on the defensive end can be attributed to something many experts feared would eventually become the Deer’s Achilles heel: how many 3-pointers they surrender on a nightly basis. Pre-pandemic, the Bucks gave up the most opponent 3-point attempts and makes in the league. In the bubble, those numbers have somehow gotten even worse:

  • Before the bubble (65 games): 38.6 OPP 3PAs, 13.7 OPP 3PM
  • In the bubble (8 games): 45.3 OPP 3PAs, 16.0 OPP 3PM

The Bucks (and their opponents) are shooting nearly identical percentages from deep in the bubble compared to the regular season, but the drastic uptick in opponent attempts seems to indicate those opponents spent the last four months studying how to beat the league’s best defense and all arrived at the same conclusion: Spread the floor and fire away from 3-point range with a shot Milwaukee typically gives up.

The Magic did just that on Tuesday, flanking Nikola Vucevic (who notched 35 points and 14 rebounds while going 5-for-8 from deep himself) with shooters and daring Milwaukee to cover everyone.

Orlando shot 16-for-41 from downtown (39 percent) in Game 1, controlling most of the game. Milwaukee, conversely, struggled from distance, going 14-for-42 from downtown (33.3 percent) as Khris Middleton (4-for-12 overall) and Brook Lopez (2-for-9) suffered through poor shooting nights.

All of this would appear to be alarming, but if Mike Budenholzer is able to slightly tweak his defense to allow fewer 3s, he’ll counteract the Magic’s 3-point heavy approach that is sure to be duplicated the further Milwaukee advances. That may require deploying more mobile defenders, shorter stints for the Lopez twins and playing Giannis at the 5 a bit more.

There’s a good chance the Bucks wake up after this stunning loss, rip off four straight wins for the gentleman’s sweep and advance to the second round amidst a graveyard of all the hot takes that seem to be flying around on NBA Twitter right now. Antetokounmpo is the best player in this series, Middleton is the second-best player, and there’s just too much two-way talent and depth on this roster to suddenly worry about the 8-seeded Magic knocking off a juggernaut 1-seed. Remember, the Toronto Raptors lost to this same Magic squad in Game 1 last year before sweeping the next four games and ultimately winning a championship.

But Game 1 — and the bubble and regular-season game tape at large — provided the blueprint for beating this Milwaukee defense, especially this rusty one that’s showed up in Orlando. The Bucks’ rim protection and ability to keep opponents from scoring in the paint is elite; now it might be time to ease up on that approach, play a few more wing-heavy lineups and protect that 3-point line before this vulnerability becomes their true downfall.